“Out of the mouths of babes, Lord, you have made yourself praise“
“Many ask only that the Church be itself”
“The Church must not be fearful of appearing kindly toward others in public life. But it is a fact that its real treasure is the Gospel read by the Holy Spirit in us. A treasure of prayer and humility”. An interview with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini
CARLO MARIA MARTINI: Now my begging is also physical, which compels me to ask help of someone, perhaps at night. This is the first privation that the Lord now makes me go through, but it’s not that it costs me greatly, because thus I give occasion to others to perform acts of charity. Then my prayer is now for the Church of Milan, it is a prayer of intercession for all the ongoings and all the people of the diocese, that I commend one by one to the grace of God. For the world Church – but perhaps it is too grand an objective – I ask that it increase its faith and hope and that these express themselves in charity. They are the virtues to which Benedict XVI has also dedicated his encyclicals.
You spoke of your prayer of intercession. In a recent book of yours, Qualcosa di così personale[Something so personal], you have collected some of your meditations on the many aspects of prayer.
MARTINI: One prays in so many ways. There is the prayer of petition, asking for miracles and healings and marvels, such as seeing people who hated each other achieving mutual forgiveness; there is the prayer of praise, or the prayer of those who struggle, travail, are fragile; of those who need forgiveness, or the poor person who needs bread. But what distinguishes Christian prayer from prayer, however lofty it is, of religions, is that Christian prayer is a direct gift of God, Who sends us the Spirit. We can say: Lord, I’m not able, You speak in me that prayer, You put it in my heart. And the climax of prayer is the prayer of trust, the handing over of our lives into His hands.
In that book there are some pages devoted to the prayer of the aged Simeon. And you focus on the image of the old man embracing the child. You write: “Simeon represents all of us in front of the newness of God” who “presents himself as a child”. Indeed you yourself wrote your last book for children, Una parola per te. Pagine bibliche narrate ai più piccoli [A word for you. Biblical passages narrated to the littlest] with reflections on some biblical passages narrated to the very young.
MARTINI: “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, Lord, you have made yourself praise”: it is the phrase of the psalm quoted by Jesus, when the chief priests and elders criticize him because they find the shouting of hosanna addressed to him by the children inappropriate. Today, it seems to me that many times children are abandoned. The news of recent days show us how helpless they are in the face of the evil that can be done them. But what strikes me in them is their natural trusting openness to their parents and toward life which is also essential in faith.
Sometimes, instead of favoring and being moved by this openness, techniques and stratagems are sought that are intended to bring children closer to the faith. What do you hope for them?
MARTINI: Faith is transmitted to people beginning with the environment around them, but can then enter each one concretely in four ways: the head, the heart, the hands and the feet. That is, human and intellectual shaping, prayer, or manual work to help others. Depending on the type of person, one or the other works particularly well.
And how do the feet come in?
MARTINI: Scouts use their feet, to cover miles in their wayfaring.
Yet, in another recent book, a boy is reported as objecting, “I don’t know what to do with faith. I’ve nothing against it, but what should the Church give me?... I’m fine, what else do I need?”.
MARTINI: Many young people have hell in their hearts, this should not be denied. Yet I see that precisely for young people who know nothing of the Church, it’s often easier to start from the hands. They throw themselves into charitable work when they see others who do things with peace and serenity in their hearts.
But can this sense of alienation, so different from the protests and criticisms of earlier generations, actually be overcome by proposing a way of life that is challenging, demanding, difficult?
MARTINI: You can’t expect any sacrifice from anyone unless they’ve first felt how attractive the goal is. But what can impress others is charity in action. And in it, the Spirit is the first reality. St Thomas says that the law of the New Testament is the Holy Spirit, the other laws are secondary. St Paul emphasizes that moral compliance itself is not fully achievable by man and his efforts. This is often forgotten, even in the Church, and then we ourselves try to make a display of strength and rigor. But above all, charity is only possible if there is the Holy Spirit. It is the grace of the Spirit that makes easy for people what seems difficult or indeed even prodigious.
It’s said the Church is under attack. Many speak of Christianophobia. Even here in Italy there are some who talk of its being an anti-Christian country. Where does all this come from? From the hostility of the de-Christianized world?
MARTINI: The hostility can be useful in a certain way. It brings out the defenselessness of the Church, its always being entrusted to the Lord. But the Church also enjoys the esteem and kindness of many, asking only that the Church be the Gospel, that is, be itself.
Is the Gospel enough? You yourself are often singled out as the champion of a Church without dogma and structures. A Church all humility and mercy, without precepts.
MARTIN: If you think of the many religious offerings there are in the world, what distinguishes us from the others is Jesus and his way, and not membership of an organization with rules and precepts. But in faith in Jesus it doesn’t make sense to oppose the Gospel and dogmas, mercy and commandments: what I said about the priority of the Holy Spirit is valid also for this. Everything is bound together in unity, in the reality of the Church, which has an inner and also an outer aspect, and therefore also comprises structures, rules, instruments of organization. The important thing is that these realities also should as far as possible be expressions of the inner life. And then, the important things must also be distinguished from those that are not. I believe that the Church has already performed a work of purification from a great many external things that were not needed. Anyway, when I still read in the papers that I am supposedly the “leader of the progressives”, I laugh about it now.
According to some the appropriate response to this situation of hostility is to increase the public activism of the Church.
MARTINI: The Church must not be fearful of appearing kindly towards others in public life. But the fact is that its real treasure is the Gospel read in us by the Holy Spirit. A treasure of prayer and humility. And in fact the Gospel in the world is witnessed to in the fashion Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount, which I mentioned above. It’s not a matter of “confessional” proposals. They also have a secular connotation. They speak to every man. Because they allow a glimpse of a desirable way of being humans, people whom everyone would like to have close by.
These are weeks of storm over the pedophile scandal. How do you assess this situation? What call arises for the Church in these circumstances?
MARTINI: All of this can certainly encourage humility in everyone. But the words of Jesus also apply: grievous things have been done, and whoever has scandalized the little ones, it were better for him to have a millstone put around his neck and be cast into the sea. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t also great hypocrisy evident. There is total sexual freedom, advertising makes use of sexual motifs even for children.
How can the Pope be defended from attempts to involve him in this business?
MARTINI: The Pope doesn’t need to be defended, because his irreproachableness, his sense of duty and his desire to do good are clear to all. The accusations launched at him in this period are ignoble and false. It will be a pleasure to see the solidarity of all people of good will in their being with him and sustaining him in his difficult task.
In his letter to Irish Catholics, Benedict XVI recommended fasting, prayer, reading of Scripture and the sacrament of confession “to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland”.
MARTINI: These things are valid for the communities where these cases occurred as they are valid for the whole Church. But for those involved in these cases, where there is perversion and an inner compulsion, psychotherapy is also needed. It’s a matter of understanding the reason for these compulsions, and how they can be overcome, and the other means don’t enter into this particular aspect.
You are often represented as a scourge of the shortcomings and limitations of the Church. Do you see yourself as such?
MARTINI: The Church, considered as a whole, is full of holiness and inner strength. The press rages on about particular episodes, but all over the world there are many loyal, good, devout people who carry on without fuss. And I am so grateful to God, even particularly so for being alive in this period. I would never have wanted to live in times such as the Protestant Reformation, or the Eastern Schism, or at the time of the Western Schism, when there were two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. Now, the Church gives a fine presentation of itself. There are inevitable limitations and shortcomings, and they are also part of the mysterious design of God’s will.
So it is not true that your dominant feeling is a sort of bitterness, centered on the denouncing of weakness and careerism.
MARTINI: I always thank God for how He has been with me through my life, for the many people whom He has put at my side along the journey. I always say that He also spoiled me. All of life has shown me that God is good and prepares the way for everyone of us. I have had so very much, I also gave what I could. And really I’m happy, before Him.